Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Can you be sued for failing to recognize satire? Sure, why not?

We have long cast a jaundiced eye at the mainstream media's tendency to fall for fake stories. A recent example of poor reporting has become even more complicated, thanks to a lawsuit.

In April, content omnivore Associated Content, which accepts contributions of all kinds, printed a story by Nicholas Plagman about a supposed "hate crime" involving Muslim students and a sandwich. The problem is, the spurious article cited a real school and a real school administrator, who got enormous amounts of flack after the ever-vigilant Fox News reported the story as fact. Now, the administrator is suing Fox News for the damage their reporting caused his reputation.

There's plenty of blame to hand around here. Fox News of course completely failed in its duty as a mainstream media outlet to double-check their story. But, although it is somewhat painful to admit, in this case the circumstances may have been somewhat mitigating. Plagman submitted his satire news story as a real news article to Associated Content, a site which disseminates both real and parodic material. Consequently the normal 'tells' indicating that a site may not be reliable (e.g., it is called Broken Newz or The Specious Report) weren't there. And the use of a specific school administrator suggests some malice on the part of Mr. Plagman.

Fox News is getting the lawsuit, because it has the deep pockets to pay up and because it has a higher standard to meet. But there are real questions about the role of AC, which has since engaged in a frenzy of self-reflection in an effort to understand what the fraudulent submission means for its generally friendly and devoted community. The strength of this site is its open submission policy, which works fine and dandy unless someone gets cute with the facts. The problem is that in appearance and focus, AC seems to emulate a legitimate news aggregator. It carries legitimate news. Unless it figures out a better way to sort through and present its original content, it will remain vulnerable to the whims of unscrupulous posters with the potential to do real damage to real people.

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Satire pervades the web, seeping into mailboxes and mainstream news like a spilled cup of coffee. It stains and it won't go away.

The Bitter Cup is a collaborative blog for members of HumorFeed, a collaborative of satire and humor sites that has been making trouble since 2003.